Swing Vote

2008, Movie, PG-13, 100 mins


Ostensibly a political satire with a heart of mush, Joshua Michael Stern hopelessly muddled film cries out for the firm hand of either a dyed-in-the-wool cynic like Billy Wilder, who would have put some teeth in its jabs at amoral politicians and blindly ambitious journalists, or the steely humanism of a Frank Capra, whose tales of ordinary folks in thrust into extraordinary situations are far sharper than the term "Capra-corn" would suggest.

It's a presidential election year, and every-redneck Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) couldn't care less: He lives in a trailer court in downtrodden Texico, New Mexico, works in an egg-packing factory and hasn't been sober since his wife decamped to become a C&W singer. Smart, resourceful, old-beyond her-years Molly Johnson (Madeline Carroll), who regularly picks up the slack for her useless father, optimistically exacts a promise that he'll exercise his civic responsibility by voting – she took the precaution of registering him by mail so he'd be eligible. Bud instead gets drunk, so Molly sneaks into Texico's lone polling station and surreptitiously casts a ballot on his behalf. Mechanical failure erases "Bud's" vote, but not the fact that it was cast, and the distribution of New Mexico's five precious electoral votes – and with them the outcome of a historically close election -- suddenly come down to know-nothing Bud. As he waits to recast his vote in accordance with electoral law, both candidates – conservative Republican incumbent Andrew Boone (Kelsey Grammer) and liberal Democratic challenger Donald Greenleaf (Dennis Hopper) – swoop into Texico with their cynical campaign managers (Stanley Tucci, Nathan Lane), huge entourages and a small army of journalists determined to wring every possible career opportunity from the big carnival.

Leaving aside the film's unacknowledged debt to the 1939 John Barrymore film THE GREAT MAN VOTES, its fatal weakness is that it never successfully integrates two very different stories. Costner and Carroll have a touchingly bittersweet chemistry and Mare Winningham nails the role of drug-addicted runaway wife and mother Larissa in a single harrowing scene, but the Johnson family's dysfunctional dynamics are repeatedly shoved aside for wan political comedy. Both candidates are opportunists who blithely abandon their supposed principles, but they're basically decent guys, and local ambitious journalist Kate Madison (Paula Patton) snatches her soul back from the devil at the 11th hour. The broad campaign-ad parodies make no sense -- the candidates are wooing Bud, not the public, so why would they be spending money on TV commercials – and tiny Texico's dark night of the soul melts in the glare of klieg lights when the candidates finally come together for a gentlemanly one-on-one debate. Satire should hurt and personal redemption needs to be earned; SWING VOTE fails to deliver on both counts. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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